International school immerses students in dual Mandarin and English program

Beacon Hill International School (BHIS) is one of three elementary schools in the Seattle area offering a language-immersion program to students. While all three schools offer Spanish, BHIS is the first one to offer Mandarin. The Mandarin program is funded by the Confucius Institute.

The Mandarin-immersion program launched at BHIS in the fall of 2008. The program is currently set up for students from kindergarten to third grade, but there are plans for it to be extended to fourth and fifth grade students.

The students spend half of the school day learning math and science in Mandarin and the rest of the day learning social studies, reading, and writing in English. Some parents opt for students to be taught half in Spanish or solely in English.

Kelly Aramaki, principal of BHIS, speaks positively about the progress of the program, now in its fourth year.

“I think parents are really pleased with the language program,” Aramaki said. “We have a lot that we are working on to grow the program, but it’s been a really powerful program so far. … It’s been a great thing for the community.”

The Confucius Institute has taken great interest in the efforts of the international school to provide a means of spreading the Chinese language and culture. It funds much of the technology and resources required to teach the students.

Because the program has not yet been implemented to include fourth- and fifth-grade students, the Confucius Institute also provides a guest Mandarin instructor directly from China to teach the older students the language and culture for 30 minutes a week, instead of the half-day system.

Ying Ying Wu, a kindergarten and first-grade Mandarin teacher, has taught at BHIS since the language-immersion program began.

“It’s always a very hard start for many students because they speak different languages at home,” Wu said. But after the first month, the pace picks up and she starts to see vast improvements.

“The beginning is a lot of body language, facial expressions, and decoding the language by observing,” Wu said. “It’s not like adults learning a language, who just sit there talking about grammar and structure and vocabulary. It’s fun.”

The curriculum at BHIS has set a higher standard of learning for students, introducing concepts such as multiplication to first graders, which is considered to be a second- or third-grade math skill.

“We do not teach the language itself. We teach the content of the language,” Wu said. “Math becomes the bridge between me and my kids, which makes it easier to communicate.”

The Confucius Institute sponsors the technology used in the Mandarin-immersion program. Wu’s Promethium board, an interactive white board, allows her to visually teach her students math and science. The Confucius Institute has also donated many books to the in-class library, which Wu uses to read to her students. Training and workshops are also provided for teachers to help them develop professionally.

Parents are also on board with BHIS’s language-immersion program. Allison Delong is the mother of a third-grade Mandarin-immersion student. Delong’s son already has had experience in dual-language learning, attending a Spanish/English preschool before attending BHIS.

But when she saw the new Mandarin opportunity, Delong decided to make the switch.

Delong’s son is part of the first cohort of students in the BHIS Mandarin-immersion program. Though her son has struggled a bit picking up Mandarin compared to Spanish, she still sees the benefits of the program.

“The kids at Beacon Hill [make] a really cool environment because it is not just racially diverse,” Delong said. “They are truly, through the Spanish and Mandarin-immersion programs, learning about the world first-hand and not just through books.”

She said she chose this program because it was a chance for her son to try something new. He could always go back to Spanish later on in high school, but it was a great opportunity for her child to grow up in a different bilingual environment.

“As a white kid in our neighborhood, he’s just had a really authentic experience at Beacon Hill, of not only seeing visually in his classmates what the rest of the world looks like, but experiencing it in his classroom,” Delong said.

BHIS is a public neighborhood school, meaning any child within the designated district lines may apply to attend. The school draws students from diverse cultures including Mexican, Filipino, and Somali.

Because the issues we are facing right now are becoming increasingly global, Aramaki said we need to create better relationships with people from other countries and cultures to improve conditions around the world. The mission of BHIS is to prepare children to work together.

“This type of education is not just supplemental,” Aramaki said. “It’s critical to the future of our world and of our country.”

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